(Graphic: Jared Johnson and Kate Prengaman/Good Fruit Grower)
(Graphic: Jared Johnson and Kate Prengaman/Good Fruit Grower)

Hiring and training employees results in piles of paperwork and records that must be retained for audits and inspections.

Those paper piles signal opportunities for technology to offer solutions, said Riley Clubb, co-founder of a human resources software program tailored to agriculture. 

Clubb grew up in a Walla Walla, Washington, grape-growing family before launching into the tech world with Harvust, a program that offers onboarding, training and communication tools.

“Harvust is helping ag businesses to bring new employees into doing the most productive and compliant work possible,” he said.

And Harvust isn’t alone. Several entities have popped up, aiming to fill a void in the ag industry’s HR arena.

Along with Harvust, Seattle-based Ganaz aims to bring the efficiency of the digital age to employee management, just as time-tracking tools such as FieldClock, AgCode and PickTrace have eased the burden of timecards. 

Additional companies offer to seamlessly transfer the digital timecard data to payroll processing. Early customers of Ganaz’s payroll cards system, which the company encourages employers to set up as part of the hiring process, say the digital platform allows payroll to be handled more efficiently.

“I cannot speak any more highly of Ganaz in regards to the efficiencies,” said Tiffany Davis, the office manager for K&K Land and Management of The Dalles, Oregon. 

During cherry harvest, the company hires about 450 people across numerous orchards. The Ganaz tools enable her team to complete the hiring paperwork in the field if someone shows up looking for work, and then automatically push the weekly pay to workers wherever they are located, rather than having to deliver checks to the correct orchard on payday. 

“It took a task that took days and multiple people into one that takes one person a matter of minutes,” Davis said.

A shortage of skilled office workers in some rural areas also makes the efficiencies offered by technology critical, said Shelly Durfey of Lighthouse Farms in Sunnyside, Washington. Her office currently runs with just four people, down from seven, and she credits Harvust, FieldClock and payroll management tool Datatech with streamlining her employee management needs through the season. And the companies are developing more integration.

“That’s where the huge value-add is for us,” she said. 

Meanwhile, PickTrace has been hearing from its customers that they’d like similar hiring and payroll tools as well, CEO Joel Zemer said. 

“We’ve focused on, ‘How can we bring that under one hood?’” he said, adding that the company expects to roll out new tools later this year to handle the hiring documents for arriving H-2A crews and introduce payroll cards. 

Companies interviewed declined to share pricing specifics. Ganaz offers different models to fit different growers’ needs, and Harvust offers per-employee pricing scales to try to make it affordable for farms of different sizes.

Hiring and training

Ganaz and Harvust both offer two-way messaging that allows employers to send updates via text message to all their employees. That’s valuable for recruitment of returning workers, too, customers said. 

“We still have that phone number, so we can reach out to share when harvest will start, or they can ask when to plan to come up,” Davis said. Then during harvest, messaging through the system replaces a messy word-of-mouth system for sharing the harvest schedule for the next day. 

In 2020, facing a shortage of workers during pear harvest, Lighthouse Farms accidently sent a recruitment message through Harvust to their cherry harvest crew contacts as well as their pear pickers. People showed up to work, and the company was able to quickly rehire them in the field, Durfey said. 

“It just makes that communication process so much easier,” she said. 

The H-2A program requires even more paperwork for employers. That’s why wafla, Washington’s largest H-2A contractor, partnered with Harvust to develop a new tool to digitize the contract process for wafla members, CEO Enrique Gastelum said.

“There’s just a lot of information growers need to track to be legally compliant and get the worker onboarded and be ready to be part of their team,” he said. 

The “Ready on Arrival” program will be tested with a handful of growers this year, with the goal of a full rollout in 2024. 

Employers can also use the Harvust training videos and communication tools to provide more orientation before workers arrive. More communication in advance, like an orientation video, should put workers at ease about how they will be treated and “lessen the anxiety about going someplace they’ve never been,” Gastelum said. “And employers can start introducing the culture of safety and success.” 

The safety training videos are also an asset for existing employees, said Christina Meza, the food safety and employee safety supervisor for Olsen Bros. Ranches in Prosser, Washington. 

“They have a selection of topics we can use, from the Farm Bureau or L&I, and we can create our own safety meetings that are specific to our ranch,” she said. 

Conducting the meetings virtually makes it easy to share the same message with employees at different locations and creates records to easily show auditors. Meza also praised automatic safety alerts, such as for high temperatures, that notify employees they need to take more breaks and be on the alert for signs of heat stress, in accordance with Washington’s rules.

“It’s intuitive and easy,” she said, and it has helped build better communication. While some workers were hesitant, the fact that the messages just go to their phones, with no passwords or special apps needed, has eased concerns. “I’m like, ‘I’ve seen your Facebook, I know you can do this.’ It’s just taken a little training,” she said. 

Payroll cards

A few workers, accustomed to cashing checks, were more hesitant about payroll cards, said Davis, who introduced the Ganaz cards and the digital pay stubs just before cherry harvest in 2022. The ability to send the pay stubs via text message — again, no app required — convinced her that the approach could work for their farm. 

“Why do pay cards if I still have to run around delivering the paper pay stubs?” she said. 

Payroll cards certainly aren’t a new concept, but Ganaz wanted to find a tech solution for people who don’t have traditional bank accounts and aren’t as comfortable with technology, said marketing manager Martha Gonzalez. By interviewing farmworkers, the company learned that they needed text notifications, no apps, and robust customer support in Spanish. 

The cards work just like any debit card, Davis said, and have worked well once employees adjusted to the idea. If a card is lost, the company can replace it right away in the front office.

PickTrace also began developing a payroll card system specifically for agriculture, which the company expects to offer to customers this spring, along with bilingual training and support. Zemer envisions the program as part of onboarding, when employees already get their PickTrace badge. 

“Slightly over 80 percent of the workforce is unbanked and taking checks to check-cashing, paying a fee to remit their money,” Zemer said. Using pay cards is a big leap, but the benefit will be no fees for employees to access their money when using the debit card at stores in the U.S. and Mexico or at certain ATMs. 

The PickTrace payroll program, like that of Ganaz, is free to employers already using their software. Both companies say they will receive a small share of the Mastercard swipe fee charged to merchants.

“Cardholders get the convenience and safety of not carrying around loads of cash and the cost-savings of not relying on check-cashing outlets,” said Hannah Freeman, Ganaz CEO, in an email. “Ganaz also makes a small margin when they send money back to Mexico on our app, and we made sure to keep it small.”

Ganaz expects to launch its remittance tool in January. 

by Kate Prengaman

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Ganaz spokesperson Martha Gonzalez. Good Fruit Grower regrets the error.